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Outdoor Action can only improve when more students see the value of being a leader

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A campsite during a Leader Training Trip.
Courtesy of Liana Slomka

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

Student-led small-group orientation experiences such as Outdoor Action (OA) have long held an important role in creating our campus community. Orientation gives students new to the collegiate lifestyle the opportunity to begin by immediately stepping outside their comfort zones and building strong bonds through intensive shared experiences. Whether OA is the greatest week of students’ lives or something they remember with a fond grimace, it is a formative experience for Princeton first-years. The small size of OA groups allows students to settle into their new environment in manageable steps and create strong bonds. Moreover, the size of the group allows OA leaders to adequately support freshmen as they grow. But their size — the very thing that made them special — has grown to levels not conducive to these pursuits. More Princeton students should sign up to be OA leaders: it’s an intensely rewarding experience.


As an OA leader last year, I saw how OA groups were forced to be larger following an expanding first-year class and fewer leaders. OA groups became too large for backpacking permits, causing frosh to miss out on the valuable experience of learning backcountry skills while being stuck alone with their group. Having more students in each group results in a community that is less tight-knit, compounded by the issue that leaders were unable to provide the care and guidance to each individual freshman that we would have preferred. My co-leader and I felt that it was harder to have as many meaningful conversations with all of our frosh — not to mention that we couldn’t monitor everyone’s hydration levels the way we should have been — since we were in a bigger group. OA is still a strong program, providing valuable group bonding and outdoor experiences, but with more leaders, it could return to the flourishing program it once was: a program where groups of no more than 10 first-years connected with each other, developed wilderness skills, and learned from their leaders about the Princeton community while trekking in the backcountry.

It can be hard to convince someone to sacrifice their summer break to get muddy just to hang out with frosh for a week. The training is intense, consisting of the Leader Training Trip (LTT), preceded by Leadership 101 and 102, Outdoor Technical Skills, and Managing Safety workshops, as well as Wilderness First Aid and CPR courses. Additionally, it can be hard to explain how rewarding OA is as a leader: how do you convince someone that leading a four-day camping trip with complete strangers could be one of their most rewarding experiences at Princeton?

Many OA leaders had never done any camping or had immersive outdoor experiences prior to their own frosh trips, but by the time they lead a trip, they can not only tie a bear bag and filter water, but respond level-headedly to medical emergencies, read maps, plan out hiking routes, and ensure the safety and wellbeing of their entire group.

The benefits and responsibilities of being an OA leader last far beyond those four days of the frosh trip. Leaders learn skills through training, make close friends on their LTTs, and experience the energy of being the first people on campus in the fall, devoting themselves to creating a welcoming environment for new students. As leaders, we feel the responsibility of being the frosh’s first point of contact with the campus community, and the joy of seeing them build their college lives. While knot-tying may not be a necessary skill (at least for some), OA leaders develop more relevant life skills too, such as making plans and quick decisions, facilitating friendship-building, and gauging the physical and emotional needs of a group of people.

OA leaders are not only entrusted with the physical safety of their frosh, but with their emotional well-being on the first experience of their collegiate journey. We are one of their first connections to campus; we are people they can trust to answer their personal questions and fears about the difficult transition to living and learning at college. We are there to monitor their comfort throughout their first weeks in what will become their new home and ensure that they are able to form their first friendships at Princeton. This is no trivial responsibility, and it lasts beyond the trip. We remain cognizant and even proud of our frosh, whether we remain good friends or see them from afar as they find their own paths through college.

As the ratio of first-years to leaders increases, it becomes more difficult to do this job well. We want our entire groups to fit under one tarp, so we can facilitate the bonding of late-night vulnerable conversations. We’d like for our group to be intimate enough that we can all participate in the same lunchtime discussion — and so that we can manage all the dietary needs, allergies, and outdoor comfort levels. 


OA has the resources to offer enriching training and development to its leaders and the potential to provide impactful experiences to its frosh. It is a shame that people choose not to be an OA leader just because they feel they are not “outdoorsy.” OA leadership is so much more than just tortillas and peeing in nature: it is a huge responsibility, and a rewarding one. But a successful orientation trip relies on there being enough leaders for the groups to remain small and personal. The more people who become OA leaders, the better the program can run, and the more rewarding it can be, for both frosh and leaders.

Liana Slomka is a senior studying EEB. She is a co-head Humor editor for the ‘Prince’ and a co-chair of the OA Leader Trainer Committee. She can be reached at

The ‘Prince’ could not independently verify some of the claims about changes made to OA activities based on group size made in this piece.

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